Opening Plenary Remarks from CEO Ann Oliva, 2022 National Conference on Ending Homelessness

Thank you. It feels a bit surreal being up here today. Not just because I have gotten used to seeing so many of you in little zoom boxes, but because this is the first time in my own professional memory that someone other than Nan is giving opening remarks.

Before I get started on what we hope to learn and consider in our time together this week, I hope you all will indulge me for a moment to say a few words about the leadership transition here at the Alliance, and about Nan.

I want to start by thanking the Alliance board of directors, many of whom are here today (please stand). They understood the assignment when Nan announced she would be leaving the Alliance. I can tell you from personal experience that they undertook a thoughtful and thorough process, I got asked lots of tough questions and hopefully asked a few tough ones of my own. But what I want to note here is the care they took with this responsibility, and how well they represented the needs of the organization and the field in that search process. I am grateful for having gone through the process, and I just wanted to publicly thank you for selecting me as CEO.

And thank you Nan for your kind and gracious introduction.

It is truly an honor to be succeeding you in this position after so many years of working together. At the risk of making her mad, I want to share some thoughts. I am going to try and do this without crying, which is not my strong suit. So here goes.

First and foremost, on behalf of the team I want to say thank you for your years of service to the Alliance, your leadership in the face of tough challenges and your steadfast and unwavering commitment to ending homelessness. We are better at what we do because of your leadership. And we are grateful for you and your time as the Alliance’s CEO.

I also want to say that I am personally better at what I do because of your leadership, your friendship and your support.

We have worked together a lot over the years, but the image that comes to mind first is one late night in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I was working on disaster recovery for HUD and you were the person in our field who I looked up to maybe the most of anyone. And that night you and I and a few others loaded into one of the UNITY GNO outreach vans and went into some of the most visceral, heartbreaking and difficult situations I have still ever seen with some of the most amazing outreach workers I have ever worked with. Abandoned building outreach is a special kind of outreach and is incredibly difficult. You didn’t have to do it. What I walked away with from that night was that you wanted to really understand what was happening in New Orleans so you could use your power, and the influence of the Alliance, to help in the ways that made the most sense. I doubt you even told folks you did that and maybe you don’t even remember. To me it was a big deal.

I went on to ride with that outreach team many times, including during my tenure at HUD. Because I wanted, like you did, to see firsthand what was happening on the ground to make better decisions. And because of the advocacy you promoted, we went on to get the largest single Continuum of Care grant in the history of the program to provide rental assistance to people experiencing homelessness in the State of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. I got to be the one to implement it when I got to HUD.

I am sure many others in this room and in our field have similar stories of how you influenced them to do this work with integrity and perseverance. I wanted to share one of mine today. to illustrate your immeasurable impact on our field and to help me say thank you for all you have done and accomplished towards our shared goal of ending homelessness.

Getting to Know Each Other

Thank you for indulging me.

OK, now let’s get to know each other a bit. If you feel comfortable, raise your hand in response to the questions I’m going to ask if it applies to you. You may fit into more than one category. And I encourage you to look around because you may see someone you want to connect with during this conference based on how they respond.

  • Who is at an in-person Alliance conference for the very first time?
  • Who started in this work during the pandemic?
  • How many of you are front line staff?
  • How many folks have lived experience of homelessness, housing instability or of the systems that are related to homelessness like public housing or vouchers, child welfare or behavioral health systems?
  • How many are CoC or other systems leadership?
  • Staff from other national organizations?
  • Can I see the hands of our Federal staff or local government staff?
  • Do we have any housing folks? PHAs or affordable housing people
  • Last question – And for those of you who are here for the first time, I would take a good look around for this one because these folks will be a good resource for you… how many of you have been doing this work for at least 10 years?

Getting to Know the Alliance

Our own team at the Alliance has changed since you last saw us in person. Can the Alliance staff stand?

I just want to give a huge thanks to this team who managed this conference alongside all new covid protocols to help keep us safe, and also in the middle of an organizational leadership transition.

Thanks to all of you for your work.

I am going to end the “getting to know each other” portion of this plenary by saying a couple of things about me. And here’s why.

I believe that to successfully work together as a field we need to know each other, and we have to be in community together so that we can have hard discussions and make sound decisions. This is part of my commitment to building trust and collaborative relationships.

Because when we aren’t in community that means we are doing this work in isolation, and I think we have seen that doesn’t work.

I have known and worked with many of you in this room for a long time, but I will share something I don’t talk about a whole lot. I am the daughter of Cuban immigrants who came from Havana to this country in 1962 with a toddler and another child on the way. They were hard workers who loved their country, but wanted to make sure they had a good life for their children in what was an increasingly dangerous political environment especially for my father. Like many immigrants, they left their country with almost nothing. One suitcase, in fact, with family pictures hidden inside the lining.

But they received help when they got here, and I think the fact of that help has shaped my family in big and small ways. So has living with the trauma of their decision to leave their country and start over. So it is not a coincidence that my siblings and I are all do-gooders in some way.

All of this to say – ending homelessness is both personal and professional for me. I am here to use the platform that being the CEO at the Alliance gives me to continue doing this work. I want to amplify the best of what we have done so well as an organization and also look for new ways to approach our shared work to end homelessness.

What is Our Shared Work?

Because the work of ending homelessness is hard. Doing this work during an evolving pandemic has left so many of us experiencing a new kind of tired. Not the jet-lag to DC kind of tired. Like, bone tired.

You are tired because rents are skyrocketing, making the resources we have harder and harder to use. You are tired because you are experiencing a workforce crisis that means you don’t have enough staff and the staff you do have are experiencing burnout. I heard a story from a colleague about the COO of a big non-profit taking the overnight shift at one of their sites because they don’t have enough people to cover shifts. You are tired of battling the increasing criminalization of people experiencing homelessness and the misinformation about homelessness in your communities. And some of you are tired because of your own personal experience with housing instability or homelessness; because of your own experiences of trauma. At the Alliance we are struggling with some of these same issues.

I want you to know that we hear what you are telling us. And hopefully you can look around this room and know that you are not alone in this struggle.

Our shared work can’t be about going back to what we had before the pandemic. The pandemic brought into clearer focus that what we had wasn’t good enough.

It wasn’t good enough because we didn’t have enough resources to do our jobs AND because we weren’t fully engaged on racial justice. We were not having hard conversations about equity and how the pursuit of housing justice should be our north star. We allowed disagreements on policy or definitions to split the field rather than find the common ground that unites us.

But we have an opportunity to set a different course. We can choose to have unity—as federal partners, national organizations, stakeholders, service providers, and as people with lived experience—even if we don’t align on every policy or program design choice. We can pursue housing justice and a future where every individual, youth and family can access safe and affordable housing, and have the supports they need to maintain their housing if something goes wrong. That is how we will end homelessness once and for all.

Because – you all know this better than I do – having to decide who gets help and who doesn’t is awful. It’s terrible for the person or family asking for help, and it is gut-wrenching for the staff who have to do it. But I firmly believe that it doesn’t have to be like this. I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t believe it.

We have an obligation to not just work together but to also show up in community and listen. To that end, my team is planning a series of site visits and listening sessions beginning in September so we can hear directly from people with lived experience, front line staff and system leaders to help us identify the best short-, medium-, and long-term strategies that the Alliance should be pursuing. When possible, we’ll coordinate our presence in community with state/local conference planners and other leaders like the team at the US Interagency Council on Homelessness – so we can learn together.

As I talk about coming into community it is important that I be clear about one item in particular. If you on ask me or another staff member to speak at your state or local conference, we will ask you about the extent to which people with lived expertise have space on our agenda. If your answer is that they don’t, then the Alliance won’t be able to say yes. Otherwise, we’ll gladly be in community with you.

State of the Field

The pursuit of housing justice is a going to be a long game. We have to work towards that while also making progress in the short and medium term. To do that we need to understand what the available data tells us.

Despite making progress on reducing homelessness across all populations from 2010 through 2016, homelessness—especially unsheltered homelessness—has steadily risen, making this an even more urgent crisis.

In 2020, HUD reported that for the first time since they began collecting point-in-time count data, there was an increase in the number of people in families with children living unsheltered. Also for the first time, we saw the number of individuals living on the streets exceed the number of individuals living in shelters.

This should be shocking, but it’s likely not for many of us. What it is, is absolutely unacceptable.

The data also tells us that:

  • People of color and historically marginalized people are disproportionally impacted by homelessness.
  • Families experiencing homelessness are typically headed by women, many are headed by young parents and they include a high percentage of young children.
  • Youth, veterans and adults experiencing chronic homelessness are suffering on our streets and in shelters every day.
  • And more than half of sheltered people and 40% of unsheltered people work but still cannot afford housing.

Because we didn’t have real-time national data, the Alliance surveyed CoCs over the course of the pandemic and found that most Continuums of Care believe that unsheltered homelessness has increased in their community. Based on what we know, we strongly suspect that unsheltered and chronic homelessness will show an increase when HUD releases the 2022 PIT data.

For families the story seems to be a bit different. Our information from the field indicates that the number of families becoming homeless during the pandemic may have decreased at least in some communities. This is likely the result of pandemic relief measures that helped keep families afloat – like the Child Tax Credit, unemployment insurance supplements, Emergency Rental Assistance and the eviction moratorium. As far as we can tell, cash helped to keep families afloat. But we know that there is great risk as these programs come to an end.

Systems Level Work

Ending homelessness through the pursuit of housing justice requires us to implement system-level solutions – and we must move with both urgency and with intentionality. Systems-level improvements we can focus on in the coming months and years fall into a few distinct buckets.

First we need to learn from newer investments and add to our body of knowledge about what works. The Alliance and our partners like the NLIHC and CBPP fought hard for pandemic relief programs, And we have to evaluate with a critical eye how they worked and who they worked for, and make changes based on that new knowledge. If they don’t have the impact that we expected, we need to know why. We will also need to review in real time what communities who receive funding under HUD’s new Unsheltered and Rural NOFO are doing, and spreading the word about strategies that are working.

We need to lead with racial justice and equity for marginalized people. We know that Black, Indigenous and People of Color are overrepresented in the population of people experiencing homelessness. People with disabilities and LGBTQ people are more likely to experience homelessness. People experiencing homelessness are getting older, which comes with additional health care needs. We must examine the ways in which our own systems and organizations add to or perpetuate the disparities faced by marginalized people in spite of good intentions. To say it another way, we have to prioritize creating a system and programs that work for everyone so no one is left behind.

We need to establish a strong foundation of coordination and collaboration. This means working with non-traditional partners and establishing new ways of reaching people.

Most importantly, it means partnering with people who have lived experience of the systems we want to change. It starts with asking people what they want and need. But it continues with ensuring you are hiring people – including in management positions – with lived experience and sharing power through governance. Tomorrow’s plenary will include a conversation with Marc Dones and Marvin Futrell from King County where we will talk about this.

We have to bring Housing First to scale.

That entails strengthening partnerships with housing partners, including landlords, city housing departments and public housing authorities – and working together to preserve the affordable housing we have, increase the supply, and increase affordability by expanding rental assistance programs. We need to fight for investments in affordable housing supply and move towards a time when every household that is eligible for a housing choice voucher can get one. And we have to do this both at the local level and the national level.

At the same time we should expand access to the services people want and need especially through partnerships with mainstream resources that can provide services – like health and behavioral health services and employment. The Alliance is working on these important connections – and I believe some of our national partners working in this space – like NHCHC and CSH – are here this week as well.

We are also going to have to change the public narrative. We can’t only react to the attacks happening in state houses, city councils and on social media about people experiencing homelessness and providers. We all need to engage in more proactive communication –taking a page from organizations like the Housing Narrative Lab and Invisible People —to re-capture the narrative around homelessness and get the good that is done every day out into the world with the same vehemence as our detractors.

We need a crisis response system that includes housing focused, low barrier shelter – and learn from the NCS we implemented as part of COVID response. Crisis response should also include outreach where we equip outreach workers with real resources and not just bottles of water in summer and blankets in the winter.

Finally, we know that homeless systems cannot end homelessness alone. We have to find better ways to engage other sectors in order to bolster the safety net so that fewer people experience the trauma of homelessness to begin with. We’ll hear more from Jeff Olivet tomorrow about the need to go upstream to prevent homelessness and reduce inflow.

The Alliance’s Priorities

I know that was a lot.

But those system level pieces will build the foundation for making progress on our priorities. Right now, the Alliance is laser focused on unsheltered homelessness and older adults. I want to be clear, that does not mean we aren’t also working on families, veterans and young people. We absolutely are. So are our partners. We will be supporting efforts like the VA’s goal of housing 38,000 veterans. We are also eager for the release of USICH’s new Federal Strategic Plan so we can work together on critical federal initiatives.

We will not lose sight of this work.

How Do We Make Progress?

And alongside these strong system-level efforts, we MUST continue to push for effective policy and legislation at the federal, state, and local levels in order to scale in the way that is needed.

Steve Berg will talk more about this on Wednesday, but one way we can all make our voices heard in Washington is Capitol Hill Day, scheduled this year for Wednesday, September 14. You all hopefully received an email from me to register for this event this morning. Our goal this year is 1,000 participants and at least 250 legislative meetings. We need your help to make this happen.

The Alliance has also refreshed our materials to help you register people experiencing homelessness to vote. The elections this year are important, and will definitely impact our ability to obtain new funding and successfully promote sound federal policy.


I want to close by thanking the Alliance staff and board for being so welcoming and for working so hard to get us here today.

And I want to thank Nan again for being so gracious as you hand the baton to me.

Thanks to everyone who has offered kind words and support as we made this leadership transition.

And I want to offer this closing thought, which I sort of stole from our policy VP Steve Berg.

  • This movement to end homelessness has persevered and survived through tough challenges as well as periods of light.
  • We are changing and growing, still here doing good work and trying to be better.
  • Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter at what point you raised your hand at the questions I asked at the top of this plenary. We are the same community. I hope you feel that over the next 3 days, and that you practice that when you head home.
  • It’s true that we have a lot of work to do, but we also know a lot about what we need to do. And if we have learned anything over the past 2 years it is hopefully that we are more powerful when we work in unity and towards justice.

We have a great set of sessions and plenaries for you over the next 3 days. I hope you enjoy them and our time together.

Now I am going to turn it over to Shalom Mulkey, our President and COO, who will give us some important information as we head to our sessions.